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A lack of Solidarity

Lech Walesa has angrily dismissed claims he was a double agent - codename 'Bolek' - as "a bunch of c

"When you go to meet Lech Walesa, there are two things you will need to know," explained Chris, my Polish fixer. "First, that he will not even acknowledge your presence, as he will be online, which is what he spends most of his time doing. And second, that if you ask him whether he helped the secret police in the Seventies, he will get up and walk out."

So it was that Lech Walesa totally ignored me and stayed online as we set up our camera equipment in his office in the restored old town of Gdansk, and how it was that I did not ask the former Solidarity leader, turned Nobel Peace Prize winner, turned Polish president, if it was true that he was once a double agent, who had operated under the codename "Bolek" in the 1970s. Walesa has angrily dismissed the claims as "a bunch of crap", and for good measure has added another chapter to his autobiography, The Way to the Truth, published this month, that may end up posing more questions than answers.

"I will look into the camera!" announced Lech, avoiding eye contact with me. "I don't like to look a man in the eye. I'm for girls!" he said with a twinkle. "Tell him," he said to Chris the fixer, "I'm for the girls!"

I had just spent the morning at Lech's old shipyard, which is threatened with closure as EU competition law forbids the state aid that kept it going until recently. Gdansk, or Lenin shipyard as it was known when Lech worked there as an electrician, was the birthplace of Solidarity. Its gates look exactly as they did in the Eighties, when a series of strikes convulsed the communist leadership and presaged martial law. A Solidarity banner hangs alongside portraits of the Pope and his predecessor, John Paul II, whom Walesa generously described as being 30 per cent responsible for getting rid of communism, while he, Lech, and Solidarity, were responsible for the other 70 per cent.

The shipyard workers hadn't been in much of a mood to talk as they emerged when the shift changed. The place is a shadow of its former self and the workers, who will shortly learn their fate, courtesy of suited bureaucrats sitting in Brussels, are weary of being asked about their future.

Walesa's emotional ties with his old yard remain intact, even if he has since become something of an enthusiast for the free market. "I hope that the shipyard is saved, because it is a monument to globalisation!" Having now decided he could look me in the eye, and having spotted my slightly quizzical expression, he continued in a similar vein. "We have to accept that with open borders around the world, skilled workers will find jobs for themselves, there will be no problems for skilled men." And then, as he leant back and scratched his eyebrow, he volunteered rather disturbingly: "There will be a problem with the trade-union activists. They will be the ones who moan."

Seeing my expression of shock, Lech backtracked a little, and looking out from his office window at the still gaping ruins of buildings destroyed when Gdansk was Danzig and the Red Army was pulverising the retreating Nazis in the bitter winter of 1945, said: "Of course I would be unhappy if the shipyard closes. But we have to remember that a shipyard is only a place where parts from all over the country are put together, and that there are big reforms that we are having in Poland, which is why it is difficult to build complicated things like ships."

I was beginning to think that Lech might not be the best advocate for Gdansk's famous shipyard, and that perhaps the workers there might find a more likely champion in Silvio Berlusconi, who that day had driven a coach and horses through EU competition law by baling out Alitalia to the tune of ?300m.

I wondered whether Lech could ever have imagined the fall of communism as a young shipyard worker. "That was my dream. I thought it would take longer, that it will happen towards the end of my life. I'm glad it happened during my era and I led this fight. Then, no one could have convinced me that we could be living in such times. Someone would have had to tie me up and break my teeth to make me believe that."

He stood up, smoothed his world famous moustache - a style I noticed was still much in vogue with the men in the shipyard - and returned to his laptop.

Outside, a group of elderly German sightseers were noisily boarding a tour coach that proudly displayed the old East Prussian names from this part of the world: Danzig, Masuria, Koenigsberg. In the distance the shipyard cranes and gantries framed the sky.

But for how much longer?

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The crash of 2008